DOHA: Chad’s military government and dozens of opposition groups started peace talks on Sunday in Qatar as a first step toward ending a rebellion and holding elections.
The landlocked African nation was thrown into turmoil by the killing of longtime leader Idriss Deby Itno in battle with rebels in the country’s north last April.
His son, Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno, took over the country after his death, fronting a 15-member military junta and vowing to hold free elections.
Chad’s Prime Minister Albert Pahimi Padacke and African Union Commission head Moussa Faki Mahamat told the opening of the conference that both sides would have to make “concessions” for the talks to succeed.
But the process risks being protracted and complicated.
Some 44 armed rebel and opposition groups were invited to the Doha meeting — though some were missing at the opening, which had already been delayed from February 27.
Diplomats said these “precursor” talks could take weeks and that a planned “national dialogue” due to start on May 10 may have to be delayed.
Under the younger Deby’s plan, the dialogue would be a prelude to agreeing on a new constitution and then holding elections.
Chad has a long history of volatility since gaining independence from France in 1960 and tens of thousands have died in various conflicts.
It has a large and shifting constellation of armed opposition groups.
“The situation in Chad is very serious, we have to deliver this,” the African Union’s Faki said in his address to the government and armed groups.
Padacke said that “peace requires more courage and maturity than war.”
“Real courage does not mean brandishing your weapon but to have the courage to lay it down,” added the prime minister.
He also said success in the talks would help stabilize the whole Sahel region where radical Islamist groups have staged regular attacks.
Libya’s Foreign Minister Najla Al-Mangoush also said that the peace process would be crucial to improving stability and help “fight terrorism” in the Sahel.
As a condition for the Doha talks, Chadian rebels called for a general amnesty and the release of “prisoners of war” and the return of confiscated assets.
The military government says it has released hundreds of prisoners and amnestied several prominent leaders.
However, it has so far excluded the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT) — the Libya-based group that launched the offensive in which Idriss Deby Itno was killed.
FACT leader Mahamat Mahdi Ali was not at the talks.
Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno, a 38-year-old four-star general, took the helm last April.
The elder Deby himself came to power at the head of a rebel force in 1990. In 2008 and again in 2019, columns of fighters came close to forcing him out, but each time were thwarted by French military power.
Chad peace talks start in Qatar
Chad peace talks start in Qatar
- The landlocked African nation was thrown into turmoil by the killing of longtime leader Idriss Deby Itno
DOHA: Chad’s military government and dozens of opposition groups started peace talks on Sunday in Qatar as a first step toward ending a rebellion and holding elections.
Turkiye’s opposition pledges to strip president of powers
- The opposition pledged to change the constitution back to the way things worked throughout most of Turkiye’s post-Ottoman history
ANKARA: Turkiye’s opposition vowed on Monday to crimp the president’s powers and expand democratic rights, as it unveiled its long-awaited platform for the May 14 presidential and legislative polls.
The six parties united against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also pledged to agree on a joint candidate in the crucial vote — widely seen as Turkiye’s most consequential in generations — on February 13.
The opposition’s 2,300-point program aims to roll back many of the powers Erdogan has amassed over his two-decade rule.
“We will shift to a strengthened parliamentary system,” the program says. “We will put an end to the president’s power to issue decrees.”
Erdogan began his rule in 2003 as prime minister and was elected president — then a far less powerful post — when his mandates ran out in 2014.
He then rammed through constitutional changes in 2017 that eliminated the premiership and created a powerful new executive that allowed the president to effectively rule by decree.
The opposition pledged to change the constitution back to the way things worked throughout most of Turkiye’s post-Ottoman history.
It pledged to “urgently” amend the constitution and “put an end to the vague and arbitrary restriction of the freedoms of assembly and demonstration.”
“We will strengthen the freedoms of thought, opinion and expression,” it added.
Constitutional changes can be ratified by 400 votes in the 600-seat parliament.
They can also be put up for a national vote if the opposition gathers the 360 votes needed to trigger a constitutional referendum.
Erdogan unveiled sweeping purges after a failed 2016 coup attempt that crimped many of the freedoms enjoyed under his more prosperous and publicly popular first decade of rule.
Analysts estimate that 90 percent of Turkiye’s media are now under the government’s or its business allies’ control.
Thousands of activists — many of them Kurds — are languishing in prison on terror-related charges that rights groups believe Erdogan is using to crack down on political dissent.
In addition to boosting freedom of thought and expression, the opposition vowed to make Turkiye’s TRT national broadcaster and Anadolu state news agency abide to “the principles of independence and impartiality.”
Azerbaijan embassy in Iran suspends work after deadly attack
BAKU: Azerbaijan said on Monday it was suspending work at its embassy in Iran, days after a gunman stormed the mission, killing one guard and wounding two others.
Iran has said the attack on Friday was motivated by personal reasons but Baku labelled it an act of terrorism.
“The operation of Azerbaijan’s embassy in Iran has been temporarily suspended following the evacuation of its staff and their family members from Iran,” Azerbaijani foreign ministry spokesman Ayxan Hacizada told AFP.
“That doesn’t mean that diplomatic ties had been severed,” he said, adding that Baku’s consulate general in the Iranian city of Tabriz was “up and running.”
In a phone call on Saturday with his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said he hoped “this violent act of terror would be thoroughly investigated.”
Tehran’s police said the attacker, who was arrested, was an Iranian man married to an Azerbaijani woman.
The United States condemned “unacceptable violence” and urged a prompt investigation. Russia’s foreign ministry said Moscow was “shocked” by the attack.
Iran is home to millions of Turkic-speaking, ethnic Azeris and it has long accused Azerbaijan of fomenting separatist sentiment inside its territory.
Relations between the two countries have traditionally been sour, with the former Soviet republic a close ally of Iran’s historical rival Turkiye.
Tehran also fears that Azerbaijani territory could be used for a possible offensive against Iran by Israel, a major supplier of arms to Baku.
Blinken discusses tensions between Israelis and Palestinians with Egypt's Sisi during Mideast tour
CAIRO: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed ongoing efforts to de-escalate tensions between Israelis and Palestinians in a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo on Monday, US State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
Blinken also "noted the importance of unified international support for holding elections in Libya, and underscored the importance of the Framework Political Agreement to the democratic aspirations of the Sudanese people", Price said in a statement.
Seven dead in strikes on arms convoy in Syria: monitor
- The strikes destroyed a convoy of six refrigerated trucks transporting Iranian weapons in the Albu Kamal border region
- No country claimed the strikes, but Israel has carried out hundreds of air and missile strikes against Iran-backed and government forces in Syria
BEIRUT: Seven people have been killed after air strikes destroyed a convoy of trucks carrying arms into eastern Syria from Iraq, a war monitor said Monday.
The seven were “truck drivers and their assistants, all of them non-Syrians,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, adding that they were “killed as a result of unidentified aircraft targeting a convoy of Iran-backed groups, last night.”
The strikes destroyed a convoy of six refrigerated trucks transporting Iranian weapons in the Albu Kamal border region, the Observatory, which has a wide network of sources inside Syria, had said Sunday.
No country claimed the strikes, but Israel has carried out hundreds of air and missile strikes against Iran-backed and government forces in Syria, where the US military is also active.
“The trucks were transporting Iranian weapons,” Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman had told AFP Sunday.
Tehran provides military support to its ally Damascus in Syria’s civil war, including through armed factions.
The strikes hit a convoy of trucks, but also the headquarters of Iran-backed groups in the area, activist Omar Abu Layla, who heads the Deir Ezzor 24 media outlet, told AFP Monday.
“There was heavy damage in the area that was struck,” he said.
A pro-Syrian government radio station had reported Sunday that “unidentified war planes targeted, in a number of raids, six refrigerated trucks,” without providing further details.
The Observatory said at least two similar convoys had entered Syria from Iraq this week, offloading their cargo to pro-Iran groups in the eastern town of Al-Mayadeen.
Pro-Iran militias, including Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah group, have a major presence around the Iraq-Syria border, and are heavily deployed south and west of the Euphrates in Syria’s Deir Ezzor province.
Both Albu Kamal and Al-Mayadeen are in Deir Ezzor, and Albu Kamal has seen similar strikes in the past.
The Observatory said in November that a strike in the area hit a pro-Iran militia convoy of “fuel tankers and trucks loaded with weapons,” killing at least 14, though an Iraqi border guard official said there were no casualties.
In December, Israel’s military chief Aviv Kohavi said his country had launched the raid, adding that the convoy was carrying weapons bound for Lebanon where Hezbollah has an influential role.
A US-led coalition fighting the remnants of the Daesh group in Iraq and Syria has carried out strikes on pro-Iran fighters in Syria in the past.
Israel has also acknowledged carrying out hundreds of air and missile strikes in the country since civil war broke out in 2011.
GCC can be a ‘latter-day Venice,’ says former UK government adviser
- European trade policy expert Paul McGrade explains why now is the time for a GCC-UK free trade agreement
- Domestic politics rules out UK-US FTA while India wrestles with divisions over protectionism and politics, he asserts
- McGrade says British public feel Brexit was a mistake, bringing costs and “very, very few benefits”
DUBAI: The GCC bloc, with its strategic location and fast-growing economies, can be a latter-day Venice, balancing between East and West, according to Paul McGrade, a former UK government adviser and an expert on UK and European trade policy, who was speaking as the GCC and the UK prepare to launch the third round of their free trade talks.
He predicts that the UK’s attempts to forge free-trade agreements with the US and India will meet with failure, in contrast with an FTA deal with the GCC, which could work despite the two sides’ policy differences over China and Russia.
He also asserts, citing opinion surveys, that the British public now feel that “Brexit was a mistake and has brought costs and very, very few benefits.”
McGrade made the comments during an appearance on “Frankly Speaking,” the Arab News current affairs talk show that dives deep into regional headlines by speaking with leading policymakers and business leaders.
He discussed what a GCC-UK trade deal would entail, whether an agreement could materialize before the end of this year and, given the political upheaval of the last 12 months, whether GCC leaders could really trust the British government’s trade promises.
“The GCC region will still have strong links with China. Energy needs there are huge and growing. (But I hope) the region will continue to have strong links with the West,” he said.
“There’s a difficult balancing act that’s going to get harder in the decades ahead. But the region is very strongly placed and, you (can) already see with the UK, and Europe more broadly, a stronger recognition that this is a strategic partnership, or a set of strategic partnerships, that they can’t afford to ignore.”
Last month, the UK government said it was committed to signing a significant trade deal with the GCC. However, given the political roller-coaster ride that the UK went on in 2022 and the fact that it is no longer the manufacturing giant of the last century, many wonder why GCC countries should still be interested and whether they can trust that the UK will deliver.
“It’s a fair question after six years really of instability in the UK, a country that always prided itself and partly sold itself on its political stability and its business-friendly regulation. It has been a bit of a roller-coaster, but I think that the high tide of Brexit disruption has passed,” McGrade said.
He said although the Tory government and the main opposition Labour Party claim they are committed to making Brexit work, what they really mean is sound public finances, a more stable regulatory relationship with Europe, a more predictable one where essentially the UK will broadly follow what the EU is doing in big areas like net-zero.
“This gives investors some confidence,” he told Katie Jensen, the host of “Frankly Speaking.”
“The UK is not going to be towing itself off into mid-Atlantic or the Pacific Ocean. It’s going to be geographically, obviously and in regulatory terms, very firmly anchored in the European neighborhood. That gives a bit of confidence and a bit of stability going forward. And the UK needs investment, which has dropped off sharply since the 2016 vote.”
As the West decouples from China, experts say it will need strong relationships with the Gulf states. McGrade believes the war in Ukraine has refocused minds on the importance of the strategic partnership with the Gulf countries. “Not just through the trade deal, which could help in some areas, but it’s a broader picture,” he said.
“There’s a huge opportunity here for Gulf states and their investors to kind of reshape this relationship in the sectors that they might want to draw into their own economies in terms of building sustainable, high-skilled models for the future.”
The Conservative government in the post-Brexit era had promised that Britain would be able to make trade deals all over the world. However, they missed their targets last year. The UK has only signed trade agreements with about 60 percent of their global trade partners and talks with the US and India have stalled.
“Some of those (trade) talks have stalled, but some of them probably weren’t very realistic anyway,” McGrade said. “The domestic politics on both sides of the Atlantic probably ruled out the kind of deep trade deal with the US that some Brexiteers said they wanted.”
As for India, he said the country does not “really have a modern ambitious free trade deal with (any entity). It is an economy that is wrestling with its own internal divisions over degrees of protecting its domestic industry. And there are politics at play on things like visas.”
He continued: “It’s a different picture when you look at the Arab world and especially the GCC, because there’s a very strong historic relationship. There are obviously difficult issues in any trade deal about market access, but the relationship is probably more positive and the politics less difficult around the content of that trade deal.”
Elaborating on the potential for cross-border investments, McGrade said: “A lot of the UK’s economic sectors are in a weak position. (But) some of the fundamentals are pretty strong in areas like health tech, digital health. We have got Arab Health Week, of course, and creative industries, net-zero technology, the traditional strengths and areas like banking, other professional services.
“These are sectors that matter to Gulf economies and may matter increasingly, as we look to kind of building a sustainable net-, post-net-zero economy. So, there’s a lot on offer in the UK and probably some of it is underpriced because of the economic hit that the country has taken over the last few years. This probably is a very good time to invest, whether or not we have a trade deal quickly. But this trade deal potentially is an easier one to do than, say, US or India in political terms.”
The Gulf states are strong strategically but the relationship with the UK will need to be two-way, experts say, with British innovation holding the promise of helping the former to become high-skilled, high-tech economies.
McGrade, for one, is confident that as the UK seeks to diversify its trade and investment relationships, the Gulf states would be important in providing access to new markets, energy sources and other areas.
“(They are) going to be vital, (when) you see a Europe cutting itself off from traditional Russian supplies of oil and gas, and is also recalibrating the relationship with China,” he said. “The US talks openly about decoupling from Chinese supply chains. The UK talks a similar kind of language. The UK is probably a bit closer to the US than some of the big European powers on this.
“If that’s the kind of world that we’re going to, then the Gulf states become more important than ever, not just for energy, but for the markets that they represent, the investment and the partnerships that they’re looking to build.”
“Look at the scale of the ambition in the Gulf, not just for sort of investment for return, but for the huge long-term sustainability project that (Gulf) governments, sovereign wealth funds and other investors are aiming for. There’s a huge opportunity for genuine partnerships where some of those innovative technologies that the UK still excels at could be a part of building up that sustainable skills base in Gulf economies.”
The UK estimates that an FTA with the GCC would add about £1.6 billion ($1.98 billion) to its economy. So, where does McGrade see the most gains for countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE?
“A trade deal is nice to have, but it’s not essential. These are already quite open economies in global terms. They already have strong trading relationships with the UK. A trade deal could help reduce some of the barriers, but it’s not the biggest game in town,” he said.
“The broader picture is looking at the sectors where UK innovation in particular can help achieve the long-term strategic aims of countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE. If you look at some of the real strengths, in medical technology, health technology, digital health, we have a lot of innovation in the UK market, which is often underpinned by the fact that you have this almost unique data set because you have a huge national health service covering sort of 60 million people.”
McGrade believes the creative sector is another big source of the UK’s global strength, which can be important for areas like tourism and culture, in which some Gulf states have made a big investment. “There are areas like education that are traditional strengths and where there’s already a presence in the region from the UK,” he said.
“The professional services, banking and financial services is an obvious one. But we increasingly see legal and accounting services as well as sort of management consultancy establishing and growing their presences in the region.”
He next turned to what he called another big area, “which is the technology around net-zero, getting to net-zero, but helping make that sustainable and build economies that will be fast growing and rich, and high skilled beyond the dependence on hydrocarbons.”
“There’s a lot there. Sovereign wealth funds in the region are already investing in some of these sectors. In some cases, what they’re looking for in a partnership is to bring some of those skills back home to the region so that they can be used to help build up the domestic high skills and high tech that will be needed (in the) longer term into the century to keep high-growing rich economies in the Gulf region.”
But what happens if the UK fails to sign a specific deal with the GCC as a whole? Does it then have the option to look at single individual trade deals with, say, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar?
McGrade says this has been happening in fact. “It’s been signing individual agreements across some sectors with some of the GCC members. That would continue,” he said.
“Whatever the governments do, those economic fundamentals ought to be attractive to Gulf investors, whether that’s at the state, kind of sovereign wealth fund level or kind of business level, because some of those strengths of the UK economy, innovation across several sectors, can really be part of the answer to what Gulf economies need to do and know they need to do to build sustainable, high-skilled, post-net-zero economies for the 21st century.”
As for the GCC countries’ less hawkish approach to Russia, McGrade does not see that as a hindrance to talks with the UK. “For two reasons,” he said. “There is a greater recognition of the strategic importance of the Gulf region, for the UK and for the West generally because of the war in Russia. Because of what that means for energy prices and long-term energy needs.
“The other point is that if the West is going to decouple from China, then it needs the Gulf. The Gulf states are well placed. They are in a strong position economically.”
To be sure, McGrade said, “the UK and Western governments generally always wrestle with some public opinion and campaigning groups at home on some of the values agenda. They always worry about if that can be squared off with the needs of the strategic relationship with the Gulf. That will continue to be an issue.”
Alluding to technical and political barriers to reaching a trade deal, he acknowledged that the two sides have different opinions on certain issues but said: “They are not showstoppers. The deal is doable. It’s probably more about political will in London. It would be a failure of political will if that deal isn’t done.”
McGrade was forthright about his opinions on British voters’ decision to leave the EU three years ago. “Pretty consistent polling over time suggests that an ever-growing number of the British public feel that Brexit was a mistake and has brought costs and very, very few benefits,” he said.
Nevertheless, he said, both the Conservative and Labour parties have concluded that they cannot revisit the trade deal in a fundamental way. “There is a review of the trade deal at the five-year point, which comes in 2025,” he said. “If Labour wins the election, they will want to improve the terms of the trade deal without changing its fundamental character.”
Quizzed about his personal opinion on Brexit’s costs — a weakened pound, higher inflation, trade and investment disruption, political uncertainty, loss of access to the EU single market — McGrade said it was clear that the downsides were huge and not just economic.
“The hit to Britain’s reputation for political stability, which is sort of the core of its soft power, has been in some ways even worse than the economic hit from loss of market access,” he said.